Editor's note: This column was co-authored by Jane Robbins.
If the GOP-led Congress had not done enough damage to public education by passing the statist Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), it’s poised to make things even worse. The new threat is the Strengthening Education Through Research Act (SETRA). If SETRA passes in its current form, the federal government will be empowered to expand psychological profiling of our children. Parents must understand this threat so they can mobilize to stop it.
SETRA is a proposed reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act, which created bureaucracies and funding for education research (the results of which are routinely ignored if they contradict the dogma of the progressive education establishment). But SETRA would go beyond merely wasting money and plunge the government into an area it has no constitutional, statutory, or moral right to invade: the psychological makeup of children.
Section 132 of SETRA expands authorized research to include “research on social and emotional learning [SEL] . . . .” SEL is defined as “the process through which children . . . acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
SEL is all the rage in public education. The idea is that imparting academic knowledge is passe’ because if a student wants to know something, he can Google it (seriously – this is a common theme in education circles). Instead, the theory goes, schools should focus more on “non-cognitive” skills to jumpstart education – helping students develop government-approved thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and behaviors that will supposedly make them more productive workers.
In other words, the school will do what the parents should be doing (encourage development of these non-cognitive traits), while the parents do what the school should be doing (teach math).
SETRA would authorize the federal government to sponsor research on these social and emotional attributes. This means the government may analyze a child’s psychological makeup, collect the necessary data, and do Heaven knows what with it.
Even experts in the field admit that these sorts of SEL indicators are extraordinarily subjective and difficult to define and measure. A leading researcher in this area, Dr. Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania, warns that trying to measure these indicators and use them to trigger real-world consequences, such as school “accountability” scores, is not realistic. Yet the federal government marches on.
But even if there were real, measurable educational value in analyzing every child’s psyche, do members of Congress really believe government has any business doing this? Are any of them parents? Would they trust the government – any government – with this type of highly personal information on their children?
Even worse, SETRA also allows the approved bureaucracy to “establish . . . cooperative education statistics systems for the purpose of producing and maintaining . . . data on early childhood education, elementary and secondary education, postsecondary education, adult education, and libraries, that are useful for policymaking at the Federal, State, and local level.” So it looks as though longitudinal data systems, such as the state systems resulting from federal bribery/coercion, may be established to warehouse all the data points about how children’s brains work. Nothing to worry about there.
Especially since the federal government protects data with all the competence of Inspector Clouseau. A congressional hearing held in November 2015 revealed that the U.S. Department of Education’s data security is essentially nonexistent. As Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) warned after hearing the testimony, the Department’s negligence is likely to produce “the largest data breach that we’ve ever seen in the history of our nation.” And now we want to add to this data trove the most sensitive information imaginable about innocent children.
It’s always useful to identify the backers of these types of truly terrible ideas. Consider in this case the corporate- and Gates-funded Data Quality Campaign (DQC), which advocates the government’s right to collect womb-to-tomb data on children – for their own good, of course. DQC loves SETRA. “DQC sees immense value in the ability to link data across early childhood education, K-12, postsecondary, and workforce systems. . . . SETRA would require grantees to do that.” Parents might want to speculate why corporations are so enthusiastic about ramping up collection of psychological data, which would someday be linked to “workforce systems.”
SETRA passed the Senate on a voice vote and now awaits action in the House. House members, take note: A vote for SETRA in its current form is a vote for psychological profiling of innocent children. It’s bad enough that so-called conservatives in Congress voted for ESSA; it will be unforgivable if they vote for SETRA.
Jane Robbins and Emmett McGroarty are senior fellows at the American Principles Project.